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Panic!

March 27, 2012 1 comment

As we headed out to recess today I saw two of my girls whispering to each other and heard snippets of a story it sounded like I could ignore.  Oops!

Turns out they were sharing the story of Bloody Mary, a story I remember being scared sleepless by during a 5th grade sleepover with friends.  In the version I heard, if you chant Bloody Mary’s name three times in front of a mirror, the lights will turn out, the door will slam closed, and she’ll come out of the mirror to attack you.

This titillated many of my children, but one, oh one did not like it.  As I prepared to line them up for gym, I heard him gasp as though shot, then start hyperventilating and sobbing, chanting something over and over about not wanting to die.  Knowing his tablemates know his triggers, I turned to them, “did you talk to him about dying?!”  The girls tripped over themselves to offer competing, equally incoherent denials, but somewhere in there I heard the term “Bloody Mary,” and since hearing that seemed to double V’s panic, I realized what had happened.  V turned to me, in the throes of what looked like a full-blown panic attack, saying he didn’t want to be killed, he didn’t want to be killed.

I went with the one construct I thought might break through the emotional haze: “V, that story is FICTION.  It is NOT real.  Someone MADE IT UP.  It is FICTION.”  Still hyperventilating, he gasped out, “Megan. says. it’s. REAL.” His not-so-helpful tablemates quickly agreed with him – Megan DID say it was real.

Time to pull out the big guns.

“V. Who do you trust more?  Me or Megan?”

Through tears: “Y-y-you!”  But then: “But J-J-Jennifer says it’s true too!”  Increased wailing and shaking.

“V! Who do you trust more?  Me or Jennifer?”

Happily, even Jennifer agreed that I was more trustworthy.

“You trust me and I say it’s FICTION.  It is NOT TRUE.  It’s a story people make up to scare kids.”

That brought on an unexpected new problem: “They LIED to me???  Megan and Jennifer LIED???”

I told him that they were telling a story, just like we read stories in books.  This managed to get him just barely calm enough that I could line the class up, but the panic was still in full bloom, and for some reason leaving the room triggered another hyperventilating attack.  My teammate was on her break in our pod, and hearing me say something along the lines of “NO one is going to kill you,” she leapt up and offered to walk my class to P.E.

V and I went on a hunt for the school counselor, after he refused to consider going to any other teacher’s room because they all have windows (the counselor is literally in a closet, giving Bloody Mary no window to come out of).  Although she had a one-on-one counseling session starting when we found her, she pulled V in with her and kept him for over 30 minutes; he returned to class still on edge, but with his intellect back in control of his emotions.

The rest of the day was, for my room, remarkably quiet and drama-free, but it’s amazing how many things the professors don’t even think to prepare you for in grad school!

Focus on success

March 14, 2012 2 comments

It’s so easy to define the day based on what didn’t work.

The kids didn’t line up well from recess.

My lesson didn’t work well in reading.

One of my boys didn’t have a good day and had to have a note sent home.

Another boy didn’t finish his work because he had a temper tantrum after he made a minor mistake.

It’s easy to focus on these things, but if I looked at the day that way, I’d never go back.  So instead I try to look at the positives.

We did line up beautifully, and oh-so-quietly, going to lunch.

The kids did love writing their list poems.

When I gave the vague direction to “clean out your book box and get rid of all the random paper,” the whole class did start cleaning, and did it well.

The students did remember how to measure with non-standard units and did work cooperatively for almost 45 minutes measuring things at their tables.

At the end of the day, my recently-suspended student did recite a long poem fluently and almost perfectly.

Though it doesn’t always feel like it in the moment, these celebrations are just as true, and even more important, than the failures.  It’s what I hold onto every night at bedtime, and every morning as I pull into the parking lot and gear back up for a full day with my class.

Well, that was a day

February 22, 2012 Leave a comment

To start: we did a lot of good things at school today.  Reading, math, social studies, music, writing – they all went well for most of the class.  Lots of learning happened, kids were happy.

But.

One of my boys is working to “stay in his bubble” (keep his hands on his own body and off of others) during the day.  For each part of the day he does this successfully (or mostly successfully), he gets a sticker.  7 stickers and he gets a reward from the counselor at the end of the day.  Usually he gets 5-7 stickers a day, but today he got 0.

Zero.

That means he was touching (or rolling on, climbing on, jumping on, or holding on to) other people all day long.  And it wasn’t just that.  He was so upset about not getting his first choice of reading buddy that he kicked over his book box and pegged the books at the floor – but was startled, scared, shaking like a leaf and sobbingly apologetic when I said he had to go the office.  It’s not an act or manipulation (though I understand if you think that’s wishful thinking); I believe he truly does not realize what he’s done until I say he has to leave the room because of it.

At recess something set him off and he stalked away across the field, bringing his best friend with him.  I had to call on all of my dog training skills to get them back.  I stood my ground instead of moving towards them, and used my voice and body to project absolutely confidence and authority.  “Come here NOW.”  It was touch and go for awhile – I almost signaled a coworker with the walkie-talkie to call for an administrator  – but once I got his friend to turn around he eventually came sulking back.

When I picked him up from music he was sitting in the corner (he’d gone there on his own), throwing his shoes at the floor and crossing his arms saying “Music stupid.”  I do not know what happened (he wouldn’t say and the (patient, awesome) music teacher seemed surprised and baffled, and another of my boys was sobbing facedown on the carpet (that’s another story), so it wasn’t a time for deep conversation), but when he finally, reluctantly, left the music trailer he refused to go further than the bottom of the ramp, and stood kicking the side of the trailer repeatedly while the class stood waiting to reenter the building.  It probably lasted almost two minutes – an eternity with a class waiting in line.  I had to send two of my students to the teachers on the playground for help (but they were too busy talking to each other and my kids were too polite to interrupt so no help was forthcoming); but suddenly, he was at my side, holding my hand, avoiding eye contact, sullenly silent and relatively calm.

We came back into our classroom for quiet time, which is how we transition from specials to math.  The kids are supposed to stay at their table spots and read or rest for 2-4 minutes in quiet.  He, of course, was neither staying at his table nor being quiet.  After pinballing around the room and being told to sit down he finally headed back to his spot, but first swiped another child’s plastic hair clip as he went by.  Shouts, of course, ensued, since he’d taken it right out of her hair.  I went over, told him to give it back, he refused.  I repeated the direction.  He refused.  Repeated the direction. He put it in my hand, I closed my hand over it, he shrieked, grabbed at it again, pinched hard, and shattered it.

And that, of all things, was what made me cry.

I didn’t say anything, just walked back to my table and put my head down on my arms.  I cried because I had worked all day to protect him and protect the kids in my classroom, but I couldn’t even keep a hair clip safe.  I don’t want him to leave, I don’t want him to be hurt, but he can’t hurt other kids and still stay, and hearing that cracking plastic made me feel like I just can’t do it.

I didn’t cry for long – you can’t with a classroom full of kids – and the rest of the day was okay.  But we can’t have more days like this, and I’m not sure what else I can do to ensure that.  Yes, the recitation of this day seems to scream out for a counselor’s intervention, but he already spends more time with the counselor than any child in the school, and she actually does have responsibilities other than him.  I can’t call every time he’s upset or she’ll never be able to do her job and he’ll never be in the classroom.  So we’ll all keep trying our best each day, and I’ll keep telling the counselor, the administration, and anyone else who will listen what’s going on, and I’ll hope against hope that the next committee I bring him to gets how much he – and I, and our class – need help.

A new normal (kind of)

February 17, 2012 Leave a comment

After spending a few weeks in absolute crisis, my classroom is feeling calm and stable again.  It isn’t until I discuss my day with someone else, though, that I realize our room is not normal, and probably never will be.

For instance, describing this morning, I told a colleague “it’s been a good day.”  By this, I meant that we had a good morning meeting, the class calmly made their independent reading choices, got started right away, and didn’t interrupt me while I was teaching a good lesson to a guided reading group.  They had a great time “putting a poem in our heads” (memorizing a poem) during our first reading lesson, and did a great job on their second reading choices.

BUT.

This doesn’t take into account that when we came to morning meeting, one of the boys didn’t get his preferred spot and stood, sobbing, outside the circle.  Another boy shrieked randomly throughout every whole group meeting and lesson of the morning, sometimes throwing himself backwards and hitting the carpet repeatedly with his arms.  A third refused to do any reading choice, instead kicking a foam block around the room, saying “I don’t do NOTHING! It so BORING!”

All three boys are on behavior plans, have daily updates sent home, meet regularly with the counselor, have well-established relationships with me, both assistant principals, and other first-grade teachers, have been observed by the county behavior specialist, and are being jumped to high-level intervention committees.  And as crazy as their mornings sound, it is so much better than before.

And as crazy as their mornings sound, I would still prefer to have this class, hands down, than last year’s class.  This group is so bright, has such a (relatively) strong grasp of English, and they’re so curious and willing to explore with me.  Almost every one of our days is good, even when our days are awful.  And these three boys are tough, to be sure, but they’re genuinely good kids, and I have to believe we will eventually find a way to help them be happier.

Heated molecules

January 28, 2012 Leave a comment

It’s been a hard week. One of my boys is in total meltdown (the counselor, who adores him, says, “oh yeah, he’s a hot mess right now”), one is continuing his desperate search for attention, and their combined meltdowns seem to be upsetting the very delicate balance I had found with my emotionally fragile child.  When relatively stable and healthy, these three boys take about 40% of my attention.  With all three crashing and burning together, they’re taking about 98% of my attention.  This leaves 2% for the 13 other six- and seven-year-olds in the class.  They’re a good group of kids, but no group of six- and seven-year-olds is good enough to go through an entire school day – let alone a full week – with almost no guidance or attention, especially surrounded by three constant crises.

So the rest of my class is melting down.  I have not taught anything new this week.  The only teaching I managed to do – introducing them to Eleanor Roosevelt – I did with one of the boys in crisis sitting on my lap, hugging my arms tightly and rocking.  It’s a good thing I can spin dramatic, spur of the moment stories about historical figures, because I definitely didn’t have a hand available to hold the book we were supposed to read.  And I managed to spin this story while one of the other boys shrieked repeatedly from a corner of the classroom (the third, miraculously, sat quietly and raised his hands to ask attentive questions).

The only bright spot of this week is that it’s been so incredibly bad that I’ve finally gotten the attention of other people in the school and we’re finally moving forward aggressively to get these boys help.  No more “have you tried giving him more one-on-one attention?”  “Have you tried teaching him to take some deep breaths to calm down?”  Now we’re bringing in counselors, we’re bringing in parents and translators, we’re getting formal documentation and referrals submitted, and – thank god – we’re skipping the rest of the 30 committee meetings that each suggest six-week interventions before I can talk to the next committee and we’re moving straight to “we need to figure out a solution for this child and his family.”

For the first time this year, I’m feeling optimistic that we may be able to get help for my three boys.  I’m consumed with guilt, though, at how little attention and patience the rest of my class has been getting from me, and worried about if and how we’ll be able to reestablish a peaceful, supportive classroom community once these crises are dealt with.  And I am tired.  Thank goodness for the upcoming teacher workdays; I need some time to take a deep breath and figure out my next steps.

Validation

January 11, 2012 1 comment

Last year was hard. My boss didn’t like most of what I did in the classroom and let me know it all year.  If one of my six-year-olds was (gasp!) wiggling on the carpet, she’d write in her notes that the class was off-task and not learning.  This time last year, we had an hour-long meeting to explain that I might not be recommended for reappointment that spring.

Flash forward. I have a new evaluator who thinks deeply about teachers’ practices.  We’ve talked informally about my class throughout the year, we are in 2 hours a week of team meetings together, and she’s been in to observe a few times. We had a 15 minute mid-year meeting today in which she said that I am exceeding expectations on 7 of the 23 professional standards and she’s recommending me for reappointment.  She explained that she’d thought a lot about the observations she’d done in my classroom and even talked with my mentor to think through her evaluation of it.  She said that her first impression was that the kids were behaving rather “loosely” with me (yet would sit up ramrod straight when she looked at them), and that threw her off a little.  But then when she looked more closely, she saw that I was constantly checking for understanding, pushing kids to explain their thinking, and providing enough freedom for the “hard to fit in” kids in my class to feel comfortable and find success.  She said, essentially, that my management style is not her own, but that if it works for me, she’s fine with it, because she can see that it’s working for the kids.

Forgive me a flowery moment: this is like a balm to my soul.

I’ve spent the last year and half filled with fear, doubt, and a sense of incompetence because my classroom simply doesn’t look like the other classrooms.  I know my kids are learning, but when other people see or hear our room, I feel judged – that I can’t control them, that I don’t know how to keep them in line.  And the truth is, I don’t – not in the way other teachers do.  I cannot for the life of me get a class full of six-year-olds to line up straight and silent (though I’ve seen it done).  But I kind of don’t care about that, which is probably why I can’t do it.  It’s just not a battle I feel like waging when there are so many other things that matter more to me.  Honestly, the one major non-academic battle I’ve fought this year is to have students stop touching the levers on my chair.  Drove me nuts.  They stopped.  I’m sure if I really, truly cared I would figure out how to have a quieter, less wiggly class.  But I love the roly-poly, puppy nature of six-year-olds.  I love their random conversations and off-topic explorations.  I let them conspire with a buddy sometimes instead of reading because I want to see what they’ll come up with.  I watch them change the rules of the math games and invent totally new activities, then I talk with them about what they’ve figured out.  Not all of the freedom I give them is productive, and I definitely feel sometimes like my kids are less “polished” than many of the other teachers’, but they’re learning to think, to explore, to test boundaries.

For the last year, I’ve been taught to think of myself as a failed classroom manager and therefore a failure as a teacher.  Today’s evaluation reminds me that while I may fail to look like everyone else, I’m succeeding at putting my teaching philosophy into practice.  As I read what I’ve just written about my classroom it sounds exactly like the application essay I wrote about teaching and learning to get hired for this job.  My goal for the rest of this year is to approach each day with a sense of positive purpose for what I’m choosing to do in my classroom and let go of the needless guilt and worry about how things might appear.  If I’m happy, my kids are happy, and they’re learning, that works for me.

I prefer drama

December 23, 2011 Leave a comment

We decorated gingerbread men cookies in class on Wednesday.  I made 19 cookies for 16 kids, but 2 cracked in transit and a 3rd broke as I handed it out, leaving exactly the number I needed intact.  One cookie, however, was much thinner than the others, and when the boy decorating it tried to transfer it into a baggie to bring home, it cracked under the weight of the candy.

About half of my students would have shrugged it off.  Hey, it might be broken, but it’s still a cookie with lots of candy on it!

About half of my students would have dramatically melted down.  The cookie BROKE.  It is the end of the WORLD.

Both these reactions would be easy to manage – the first obviously so, but even the dramatic group is pretty easy to respond to.  You sternly stop the crying, focus on the fun of the experience and the intactness of the candy, and send them on their way.

But this one boy, the only one whose cookie broke, isn’t part of either of these groups.  He’s not go with the flow, and he’s definitely not dramatic.  So when his cookie broke I didn’t even realize there was a problem until I saw him standing, silently, holding the broken pieces, little tears quietly dripping down his cheeks.  No words, no tantrum, just a silent mourning that I was powerless to help with.  I tried to help, of course, but in the end all I was able to do was gently take the cookie pieces from his hand and finish packing them up.

Is there anything harder than not being able to comfort a sad child?  Sometimes I think I’d be okay with more drama in my classroom if it meant being able to help the kids when they’re sad.

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